Deadly double cross: How Chandlers were failed by SAS rescue that never came and kept captive despite £280,000 family ransom

As Christmas approached,a forlorn Rachel Chandler wandered into a desert clearing and used her finger to inscribe ‘Happy Xmas’ in giant letters in the sand.

Watching her write the message, lolling in the shade, the pirates — who were at least nominally Muslim — seemed bemused, but didn’t erase it.

They appeared to think it was the sort of thing English people did when far away from their loved ones during their festive season.

Close to the edge: The Chandlers' video appeal when they said their captors were losing patience

Close to the edge: The Chandlers' video appeal when they said their captors were losing patience

Rachel had guessed this would be their reaction — but this was no mawkish gesture.

In fact, it was part of a carefully thought through escape plot. She hoped the huge letters would be spotted by one of the military planes the Chandlers had seen flying over the flyblown bivouacs where they were held.

‘We were thinking: “If someone is looking for us, how can we signal to them we’re here?” If they saw a message written in English, it would also have been pretty obvious a Somali hadn’t written it.’

Drawing on their penchant for puzzles and working as a team — as always — to apply their analytical brain power, this was one of several ingenious escape plans devised by Paul, a Cambridge-educated engineer, and Rachel, an LSE-trained economist.

On another occasion, they sneaked off and scattered the sheets of the precious toilet tissues provided by the gang across the tree-tops.

Images of the bright white paper might stand out against the desert landscape and show up on satellites, they reasoned.

If it was spotted, they knew it would be a simple matter for a snatch squad to swoop down, take out their young guards — whose macho posturing with AK47s and rocket launchers couldn’t mask their cowardly ineptitude — and whisk them to safety.

‘At night we could easily walk out to the toilet area and I would imagine hearing a British voice from the bushes muttering to me: “Keep walking, walking. The helicopter is about to land,” ’ says 60-year-old Paul.

Spiced by such Boy’s Own fantasies, the Chandlers’ elaborate escape plans helped sustain them during their 13 months of captivity — and grew increasingly desperate as negotiations to free them stalled in the face of the pirates’ greed.

Sickened by the thought of the gang being paid, they dreamed of a daring SAS rescue. At times it seemed close to becoming reality.

For in one of the more intriguing aspects of their compelling story, they recall how, on three occasions, their captors told them British troops were operating inside Somalia.

On November 7, a fortnight after their kidnap, a gang member triumphantly sought out the
couple and boasted that his comrades had fought a gun battle with British soldiers and killed five of them.

Then, two days later, a translator said British soldiers were in Somalia ‘again’ — raising their hopes that rescue was imminent.

And on December 14, they overheard gang leader Bugas bellowing at his men. Afterwards, he turned on the Chandlers in fury, shouting: ‘British soldiers — helicopter — attack!’

So what to make of the amazing prospect that an SAS snatch squad was sent to save the couple while politicians publicly claimed it was far too risky?

Is it really conceivable that this rag-tag bunch of gangsters could have taken on an elite fighting force? Paul is sceptical, believing these stories were part of the pirates’ tactic of ‘spooking’ them to ratchet up the pressure and make their begging phone calls home more authentic.

Rachel admits she dared to hope it was all true, but adds: ‘We knew Bugas could have been inventing the stories and telling them to the guards to make them more alert. They were so lazy.

‘They were prone to lying around in the sand under a tree with their AK47s hanging off a branch. ‘Bugas would rant and rave and say: “Rachel and Paul are making signals to the spy planes and satellites. You have to watch out for them all the time.” ’

Among the hundreds of hostages taken by the Somali sea gangs, the Chandlers are the only couple to have been held inland.

If they had been located, they agree a rescue attempt would have been relatively easy, given the guards’ drugged-up state.

With typical attention to detail, they kept escape ‘grab-bags’ with them at all times, containing passports, clothes and diaries.

But they knew the risks — Rachel had even penned a poignant farewell letter in case she was killed in a rescue mission.

She hoped it would somehow reach her brother and sister, Stephen and Sarah Collett, or other family members.
‘I wrote a note to my family saying: “If I don’t make it because of a rescue attempt, please don’t ever blame yourselves. We fully support any rescue attempt and if we were to die in that attempt, we wouldn’t want anyone to regret that.” ’

Soon after they were kidnapped, on October 23 last year, it became clear they could never find the money the pirates were demanding.

The gang was accustomed to commandeering ships whose owners would pay millions.
Yet the Chandlers were just a pair of adventurers from Tunbridge Wells, Kent, living off their retirement nest-egg and occasional freelance work.

‘Paul told them the most we could expect to raise was about $300,000 (£193,000),’ says Rachel.
‘That was all our savings and would include the profit from selling our small, two-bedroom basement flat.The pirates just laughed. They said they wanted “big money” and simply didn’t accept we couldn’t get it from the British government, the public, or somebody.

‘They said our family must have big houses they could sell to pay the ransom. To us, the prospect of them having to do that and live a life of penury was just horrendous.’

The task of dealing with the pirates fell to Rachel’s older brother, Stephen Collett, 59, a recently retired arable farmer enjoying retirement in Ixworth, Suffolk.

The father of two was badly burned as an infant and almost died. As a result, says Rachel, though he is a gentle, sensitive man, he has always been a fighter.

He needed to be. He was placed under terrible strain, never knowing when the phone might ring, and trying to reason with the gang’s ‘spokesmen’ (first one called Omar and later Ali) as they issued threats and ultimatums in garbled English.

‘Stephen did this because there was simply no one else, and his life has been turned upside-down,’ says Rachel.

‘Our whole family has been incredibly supportive, especially my brother. We will always be enormously grateful to him.’

The Chandlers were permitted a brief call to Mr Collett after being transferred from their yacht to the hijacked container ship Kota Wajar.

Later, after they had been driven 100 miles inland to the pirates’ lair, a mobile phone would be pressed to their ears periodically, and they would be prompted to plead with him. Then there were those heartrending video appeals, sickeningly choreographed by the pirates to play on the family’s heartstrings and shock the watching world.

‘In the early days we were told they were looking for something like $4 million [£2.6 million],’ says Rachel, shaking her head.

To the Chandlers, the gang’s lust for vast wealth was not only nauseating, but puzzling. Why, if they were successful pirates who had negotiated ransoms in the past, did they still live in mud huts and tents without electricity?

Why were their only visible luxuries clothes, cars and mobile phones from Dubai, plus the local drug, khat, which they all chewed habitually and cost them just £7 each a day?

Where did all their millions go? The couple never found out, but the suspicion is that it is laundered through a tangled web of investments including property in the Kenyan capital Nairobi and the United Arab Emirates.

The Chandlers suspect that Bugas was only one cog in the gang’s chain. For though he strutted around issuing orders, they would meet other, shadowy figures who seemed to hold sway, even over him.

One, a weasel-faced little character called The Commander, was on the Kota Wajar and would visit their desert hideout from time to time, where the others would defer to him.

‘My sense was that he was a successful pirate who had made his money and was assisting the gang leader. I suspect he was one of a number who were in some way coordinating the piracy and assisting the gangs when they had got victims,’ says Rachel.

Another of these mysterious pirate overlords they called simply Fat Boy. ‘He seemed to be regarded as a bit of a celebrity,’ says Rachel.

Fat Boy was always on hand for the videos. He spoke briefly in the final film, screened after their release but shot last June to prove to their family they were still alive.

By then, with the talks seemingly going nowhere, the Chandlers feared they might never be freed.

Though they had been reunited in April after their second forced separation lasting 86 days, they were skeletally thin and psychologically close to the edge.

Then, on June 16, Paul was summoned to take a call. After the conversation with his brother-in-law, he reached for his pencil excitedly.

‘1400: call from Stephen via Ali with instructions for tomorrow!!’ he wrote. ‘Money to be taken by plane to Adado [the nearest big town] at 1100. Pilot to identify us both at the airport. Pirates want four hours to count the money. Possible, but unlikely we may be taken away tomorrow. Otherwise we stay with District Governor Mr Mohamed Aden in Adado and will be flown out on Friday. S. will call at 0800 tomorrow — maybe earlier if there are any changes.”

After seven months of dashed hopes it seemed they were on their way home at last — from the diary entry, his optimism is palpable.

It remained undiminished in his log the following day. ‘0800 Ali Ad and Sharif [two pirates] had call and told us flight tomorrow, not today. Call from Stephen (via Ali). Money on the way as scheduled. We may not be taken to airport today.

That’s OK. We should be transferred to Mr Mohammed Aden and S. will call again.’ Convinced that a
deal had been brokered, Paul and Rachel gathered their possessions, ready to leave the camp at a moment’s notice. But nothing happened.

For 25 days they waited . . . and waited. Then, to their utter despair, they discovered the deal on which all their hopes had been pinned had fallen through. They would not discover precisely why this had happened until their release.

However, it was clear the pirates had double-crossed their family. Their anger is evident from Paul’s
log of Monday, July 12:

‘Bundled into Land Rover . . . troops, rocket launcher on roof! Half-hour’s drive, passing through village with phone mast. Stopped at a tree and had interview with journalist called Mohammed. Had a bit of a rant. Ali more or less apologised for having lied to us.

Said Stephen’s money was in Nairobi and they were trying to get the ‘‘second half ’’ from a Somali group. Journalist more or less confirmed. We performed as instructed, but refused to beg.’

So what had happened? Having been reunited with their family, the Chandlers now know. Seeming to finally accept that the family would never stump up millions, the pirates told Mr Collett they would very begrudgingly accept all he could muster: £280,000.

The cash was dropped in a bag by light aircraft at a pre-arranged place in Somalia. Mr Collett had kept his side of the bargain. But the pirates had reneged on theirs.

Having pocketed the £280,000, they refused to let the couple go. The Chandlers were not only ‘devastated and furious’, but doubly worried as to their fate.

‘All we could hope was that they somehow hadn’t got the money,’ says Rachel. ‘Because if they had been double-crossed, what would they do with us?’

On this score at least, the couple needn’t have worried, for having been paid once, the pirates felt confident they could squeeze more money out of the family — and if not them, then others.

Yet having been swindled once, the Chandlers’ family weren’t about to let it happen again — even if they could have found the funds.

Five more months would pass before the pirates got their second bumper pay-off, taking the total to £625,000 and allowed the Chandlers to go home. But their journey would be a terrifying ordeal.

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